Sunday Jan. 7, the SpaceX program began the new year by launching a rocket. During the webcast of the launch, it seemed as if every aspect had gone successfully. The second stage of the rocket seemed to head toward orbit, and in the process the booster safety returned to Cape Canaveral. However, just the next day, word had spread that the launch was not everything it seemed to be, and that something had gone wrong with the classified mission named “Zuma.”
Zuma is presumed to be a form of spy satellite. The Northrop Grumman Corporation headed the construction of the craft for the United States Government. However, there is not public record of which federal agency had hired its construction and launch. The launch was originally supposed to take place sometime in November, but was delayed due to additional analysis of the nose cone. The nose cone is an integral part of the satellite that protects the payload as it travels through the atmosphere. During the live webcast, it was mentioned that the nose cone was in proper order.
SpaceX as well as Northrop Grumman never confirmed a successful launch, which leads to the conclusion that the process went awry. Apparently, Zuma failed to seperate from the second stage, and plunged itself out of the atmosphere.
“This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” Northrop Grumman said according to The New York Times when asked about what had happened.
“I can’t conclude anything definitely. We’re going on rumors and conflicting statements” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said.
He does point out that Zuma did appear to make it to orbit, since an entry for it appears on Space-Track.org, a website that consists of a database for objects in orbit. However, about two hours later, there was a sighting of something over East Africa that seemed to drop out of orbit. It is suspected that the SpaceX and Zuma operators were aware that the second stage of the rocket was still attached to the satellite. Now, experts are wondering why they did not delay, deorbit, and try to fix the issues.
“Perhaps there was no way to override the pre programmed deorbit burn, or the rocket did not pass over enough radio dishes for a new command to be sent,” Dr. McDowell stated. According to Dr. McDowell, it could be up to a week before Zuma can be seen by amateur satellite observers.
Source: New York Times